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Capitals vs. Lightning: PHT’s 2018 Eastern Conference Final preview

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How much of an underdog can you be when you won your division, and done so by a significant margin?

In the case of the Washington Capitals, it seems like you could be a genuine underdog. Really, they sure felt like one against the Pittsburgh Penguins, too, despite being a higher seed with home-ice advantage.

It was probably a refreshing change of pace for the Capitals to be less of a juggernaut, and that will certainly carry over against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

By going 54-23-5 with 113 standings points, the Lightning finished with the best record in the East, generating eight more than the Capitals. After missing the playoffs thanks to a bumpy, injury-ravaged 2016-17 season, the Lightning justified all of the optimism surrounding this roster … and more.

Neither the Capitals (two six-game series) nor the Lightning (two five-game series) have faced elimination so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To advance to the championship round, it’s quite likely that they’ll face their greatest tests yet.

SCHEDULE

OFFENSE

Capitals: Washington has scored 43 goals so far in 12 postseason games, a slightly higher per-game rate (3.58) than Tampa Bay (3.50). They’re generating a healthy 32.8 shots on goal per contest. Via Natural Stat Trick, Washington’s generated a robust 110 high-danger chances at even-strength so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Through 12 games, the Capitals’ highest-scoring forwards are three players you’d expect: Alex Ovechkin (eight goals, 15 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (14 points, seven goals including the OT tally that ended Pittsburgh’s season), and Nicklas Backstrom (10 assists, 13 points despite missing Game 6 against the Penguins).

Washington’s forward balance should return to its impressive form now that Tom Wilson‘s suspension is over and especially if Backstrom is healthy.

Lightning: Thus far, the Lightning are the scary mix of high-end offense (Nikita Kucherov leads them with 12 points after a 100-point regular season) and dangerous depth (three players with at least a point-per-game). They’re right up there with the Capitals and Golden Knights as teams averaging at least 3.5 goals each contest. They’ve scored 35 goals in 10 games.

They’ve generated 73 high-danger chances versus just 52 allowed.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. During the season, Tampa Bay scored 290 goals while Washington generated 256. The Bolts are a more versatile scoring machine than the Capitals, especially with the Caps dealing with a little more attrition.

If the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are any indication, this battle is closer than those regular season numbers would make you think.

[Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team]

DEFENSE

Capitals: The Caps have allowed 32 goals and given up 30.2 shots per contest during the playoffs, so they’ve been winning those battles. They’ve given up as many high-danger chances (110) as they’ve generated.

John Carlson rounds out the Capitals’ group of four players who are in the double-digits in points with 11, and he’s unlikely to relent as he tries to beef up an already impressive contract year. Carlson’s also a workhorse for Washington (26:44 TOI average) along with Matt Niskanen (26:52) and Dmitry Orlov (25:31). While Orlov and Niskanen aren’t lighting up the scoreboard like Carlson, they’ve been key pieces, with Orlov and Niskanen carrying a difficult workload against Sidney Crosby. It will be fascinating to see whether Barry Trotz prefers sending out Niskanen and Orlov against the Stamkos or Point lines.

Lightning: Tampa Bay’s allowed just 25 goals in 10 games, 10 fewer than they’ve generated so far during the postseason. Makes sense since they’ve won eight of 10 games, yet it’s another reminder that the Lightning have been a buzzsaw. Again, they’ve limited dangerous chances as well as any team in the postseason.

There is quite a bit of talent on this blueline. Victor Hedman is the obvious headliner as a playoff-proven, Norris-quality performer. The Lightning eventually managed to slow down the Bruins’ terrifying top line, and a lot of that credit goes to Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman. Mikhail Sergachev continues to be a scoring threat on defense even as they ease him into the mix.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. Despite scoring 34 more goals than Washington in 2017-18, the Lightning allowed four fewer (234 to the Caps’ 238). They’re generally able to create a ton of high-danger chances while keeping such dangerous threats moderate-to-low. If you could only pick one defenseman in this series, just about anyone would choose Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay has lock-down options and depth at the position, with McDonagh looking quite good lately.

The Capitals have absorbed some painful losses on offense and defense, but they play in a strong defensive system with Trotz. They’re unlikely to give up many easy chances when Matt Niskanen is on the ice. Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson can create offense, and some depth options like Michal Kempny have really improved their balance. Washington’s defense is pretty solid; Tampa Bay’s is just better.

GOALTENDING

Capitals: After regaining the Capitals top job after Philipp Grubauer‘s early postseason struggles, Braden Holtby is looking a lot like the guy who was putting up some of the best goalie numbers over the past few years, with the added bonus of overcoming the Penguins this time around.

 So far during this postseason run, Holtby generated an 8-3-0 record and .926 save percentage. It’s funny yet very “hockey” that his most rewarding playoff run comes after his first rocky regular season in some time (34-16-4 but with a mediocre .907 save percentage).

One nice thing Washington enjoys that few teams can match is employing a quality backup. While Grubauer struggled in his audition as the top guy, his excellent regular season shouldn’t be disregarded. If something happens to Holtby, the Caps have a nice Plan B.

Lightning: Fatigue and a bumpy finish to the regular season took much of the air out of Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s Vezina campaign, but it makes sense that he managed to be a finalist.

After going 44-17-3 with a .920 save percentage and eight shutouts, Vasilevskiy’s been steady in the playoffs, raising his save percentage to .927. He’s been a strong playoff performer overall when he’s managed to get the chances, as his career mark is a lofty .923 in 22 games.

Tampa Bay’s backups are unproven at best, and a real problem at worst, so it’s probably Vasi-or-bust.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. This is extremely close. Let’s not forget, however, that Holtby was sputtering and losing his top job just a month ago. With their postseason numbers so close, Vasilevskiy’s superior regular season gives him the slight edge.

This category’s another tough call, though, for two reasons: 1) Holtby is really good and is an experienced, proficient playoff goalie and 2) Grubauer gives Washington a much better backup option if something happens.

In other words, this situation could change if Vasilevskiy stumbles or someone stumbles into him and he ends up with an injury.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Capitals: The Capitals’ 13 power-play goals leads the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and their impressive 30.9 percent success rate ranks second (and first among teams that are still in the mix). Washington’s man advantage has been stout for ages now, and Alex Ovechkin continues to be one of the NHL’s singular special teams threats from “his office.”

Washington’s PK killed just under 80 percent of its opponents chances (79.1 percent), slightly lower than the Caps’ regular season success rate of 80.3 (which was middle-of-the-pack). They’ve allowed nine power-play goals during this postseason, with five of them coming during Games 3-5 of the Penguins series.

Overall, special teams seem to be a healthy net-positive for Washington.

Lightning: Tampa Bay has as many power-play goals (10) as playoff games played so far. They’ve generated a PPG on 26.3 percent of their chances; about the only downside of this unit is that it allowed two shorthanded goals. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov’s cross-ice passes simply must be stopped, as their work is right up there with the threat of Ovechkin’s wheelhouse. The Bolts’ PP was deadly during the regular season, too.

Tampa Bay gave up eight power-play goals without generating any shorthanded tallies through 10 postseason contests, killing 74.2 percent of their penalties taken.

Generally speaking, the Lightning’s PK has been a rare area of relative weakness, as they struggled during the regular season, too.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. These two teams feature power plays that can both take over a series. Washington’s enjoyed better all-around work this postseason, with a PK that seems more reliable.

As with every category, it’s close.

X-FACTORS

Capitals: The Capitals were able to eliminate the Penguins in Game 6 despite Nicklas Backstrom’s absence, but if their criminally underrated center isn’t good to go during this series, there could be problems. The Lightning boast Stamkos and Point, so having two quality centers would really help. At this point, Backstrom’s health is a real question. That could be a make-or-break factor in Washington’s chance to hang in this series.

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy’s looked like he’s back in form after acknowledging fatigue during the regular season, a lot like his goalie counterpart Braden Holtby. That said, the Lightning haven’t exactly faced adversity during this run, dispatching both opponents in just five games. If Washington starts to get to Vasilevskiy, will his confidence fade?

PREDICTION

Lightning in six games. Tampa Bay has been tearing through its opponents, including an impressive (if banged-up) Bruins team. Washington possesses balance that the Bruins and Devils arguably lacked are built to give the Bolts some headaches. The Lightning have at least a little, often a lot, of everything you’d hope for in a contender; they’re likely to end the Capitals’ post-Penguins honeymoon with cruel precision.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

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He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.